Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-31)



  20. And recreational?

  A. I am not altogether sure there is a definition of recreational water.

  21. It is such a lovely expression, "recreational water".

  A. I am glad to say that I am joined by my officials, Joe Bonsall and Emily Thompson. This is a wonderful definition. Apparently recreational water involves a water where someone is engaged in being propelled across it in some kind of mechanical device.

Lord Lewis of Newnham

  22. With the express purpose of not going under the water?

  A. I presume so.

Lord Palmer

  23. What conclusions have emerged from the further consultation with stakeholders foreshadowed in the Explanatory Memorandum?

  A. In relation to the continued consultation we have had with stakeholders, the Government's general approach has broad support, both from the recreational users and the NGOs but also from the water companies and agriculture because again it is back to trying to take a pragmatic approach. We do want high standards. We are very proud of the fact that the bathing water quality, our coastal water and river water quality, has dramatically improved in recent years. We have made really good progress in this and I think that is a matter of pride and a tribute to the very many people who have been involved in this over the years in improving our water quality in this country. We have done well on this. We want to apply this Directive. We want to apply it properly, but we also want to apply it in a pragmatic way. In terms of the response and the consultation that we have had from the different groups, there is broad agreement on the approach.

Lord Crickhowell

  24. Have you in particular had any representations from the seaside resort authorities and associated businesses that are directly affected by designation of the Blue Flag and so on? The suggestion is that we can see a fall from over 98 per cent, in which we rightly took pleasure (at least for a time), to perhaps 70 per cent. That sounds to me politically extremely sensitive. The Environment Agency says that it will be important to explain the relative risks to people and what action is involved; they express anxiety that they may come under pressure and, if there are not proper definitions, legal challenge, so this is a sensitive area. Is there any special consideration being given to the possible change in our ability to produce high standards from the most sensitive bathing beaches?

  A. Yes, we have had representations from the coastal authorities and you are quite right: they are of course very concerned about their Blue Flag designation, which has increased over the years as the water quality has improved. They are very worried about what the application of the Directive might do in relation to the change in standards. Our assessment, however, is that the worst case scenario will be about 20 per cent decline. Things have moved on a bit and of course standards have continued to rise and that should be set against the fact that we had an increase in Blue Flag beaches of 26 per cent last year, so even if it went down 20 per cent we would still have a six per cent net gain. We may be able to mitigate this further, and again it depends on how we apply the Directive in its final shape and form, and in particular if we have this flexibility in relation to the sampling where you may have the odd poor sample for the reasons that I know you all understand.


  25. Is it going to be down to the Environment Agency ultimately to have to face local authorities who feel aggrieved or for whom infraction proceedings might be necessary?

  A. Yes.

  26. The Environment Agency clearly would wish to try and be involved in the technical committees which must be going on all the time to determine protocols and the like. It was a point which arose in a different context where we were looking at waste legislation. The Environment Agency reported on the concordat with Defra which made it more transparent as to how the two different branches of Government could influence the technical detail. Do you detect any concern from the Environment Agency about their ability to influence the negotiations in this respect?

  A. We keep in very close touch with the Environment Agency in relation to the application of Directives of this type, which has major implications for them, as you will appreciate. Yes, they are concerned to the extent that there are financial implications to them. We understand that. If they have additional responsibilities then those are issues that we must resolve with the Environment Agency in relation to the spending rounds which are to come.

Lord Crickhowell

  27. But it is not just a question of the spending round. The point the Chairman was making, and certainly we were making in the context of our discussion this morning, is that what is vital when one gets to the final stage of this process is the technical drafting and the detail which emerges in the protocols. Certainly it was our concern in the days of the NRA, and clearly is still the concern of the Environment Agency, that they should be part of that process, because they are technically skilled and they are going to have to implement it. I thought that the idea of the concordat was to make sure that they were up front in Brussels or wherever these meetings take place. The question we are asking is whether this is actively happening and whether the Agency is part of the process?

  A. I can certainly assure you that they are part of the process and they are involved at all the stages because, of course, you are quite right: they do have expertise which is very valuable and we value their opinion and it is important that we approach this together.

Lord Lewis of Newnham

  28. The actual figures on which the Department's assessment is based, for instance, for E.coli and various other things—what is the basis for those figures?

  A. The basis is the sampling which is carried out by the Environment Agency.

  29. And who suggested the figures in the proposed standards?

  A. They come from the Commission.

  30. Did you ask the Commission how they arrived at those figures?

  A. Yes. We have raised these issues with the Commission. As I mentioned to you, we have some concerns about some of the statistics and the statistical base on which they are applied, not least because a lot of the research is being done by us.


  31. I think that is a very relevant note of caution that you introduce. Those are all the questions we have. Is there anything further you want to add, Minister?

  A. Just for the record, Chairman, because Lord Palmer asked me for the definition of "recreational waters", I have got the full definition which I had better give to you to make sure that I am not misleading anybody. The full definition of "other recreational activities" and "recreational waters" includes those activities where devices are used to move across the water involving a meaningful risk of swallowing water, such as surfing, windsurfing and kayaking.

  Chairman: That gives Lord Palmer all he needs to know. Can I thank you very much indeed for joining us this afternoon.

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